Since I retired from my day job to become a full time writer and since my own aging parents have passed on, I have the time to volunteer at a local seniors’ centre. The actual plan had been to volunteer with aging seniors in Ukraine, around the area my mom had spent her childhood. Funds are, however, limited and so I thought I should turn my attention closer to home. Canada’s nursing homes are filled with aging immigrants. and it’s not necessary to go abroad to hear stories—histories—about world war two and the years around it...both before and after.
Helmut was such an aging immigrant. He came to Canada from Germany in the early sixties. Using the big photographs of one of my dad’s collected coffee table books about ‘the old country,’ I was able to figure out where in Germany this old man came from. (Often being old enough to need the care of a nursing home means communications aren’t easy.) However, the photographs helped—better than the small print of a map. Besides, current maps of Europe are different than the maps of Helmut’s childhood.
Helmut came from Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien). You won’t find that on a map. It’s now part of Poland and called Gorny Slask. It was the same area where Auschwitz was built—not something that Helmut seemed to know about. Ah, yes. German memory...German responsibility...German guilt—passed on from one generation to the next. I was born here in Canada and yet I too carry that guilt. Back to Helmut.
Helmut remembered being a refugee. (Funny, they’re just discussing current refugees on the CBC. Refugees are a never-ending issue in our world.) His family was expelled from Upper Silesia at the end of the war. The Poles had good reason to rid their re-established country of their worst enemy, the Germans. Nine-year-old Helmut and his family moved to West Germany where they were equally unwelcome.
It’s no wonder local Germans resented the intrusion of the refugees. The end of the war had destroyed much of Germany and there was no room or infrastructure in the newly formed West Germany for the up to twelve million displaced ethnic Germans. This explains the bulge of German immigrants to Canada in the fifties—including my own family.
Helmut remembers being beaten by his new teacher who hated the influx of refugee children. With pride, Helmut told me how his mother marched back to the school and told the teacher off. That teacher never beat Helmut again.
Just a small anecdote about an old man who died in a small, less than stellar nursing home (staffed mostly by a new group of immigrants, by the way) here in Winnipeg. Helmut loved the mountains and told of trips he made to the Austrian and Swiss alps. Oh, how he loved the mountains. Peace to you, Helmut. I hope you’re now breathing that fresh mountain air.